I started reading Shiloh with a ten-year-old who was amused that it would take Ma all day to do the laundry “back in the day.” I found this entertaining, considering she and I have talked in detail about how stressful and exhausting laundry-by-hand was for me while in Peace Corps in Moldova. Of course, she is ten and probably hasn’t even used a washing machine, let alone a washboard. Oh, how I pined for a washboard!
Forget washboard abs, I longed for the metal ridges that would scrub my clothes and save my knuckles. The thought of washing my jeans in cold, winter water, then drying them in the cold, winter air actually got me nostalgic, though. As I did with bathtubs, let me explain how the process of clothes washing has defined some of appreciation for life. In this case, washing clothes by hand in the winter taught me loads (yes, a pun) about hard work and taking care of my own cleanliness.
Washing delicates by hand is totally understandable and doable, especially for those of us who travel lightly. Washing jeans, sweatshirts, and towels by hand, however, is no fun, especially in the winter. Imagine the annoyance of wringing out a heavy towel but multiply that by eleven (because eleven is my favorite number and probably an accurate multiple).
First, you carry the water from the well, heat it, then pour the water in the spinning basin. Throw only a few clothes in and wait thirty minutes for them to swish around while the machine acts possessed. Then you can take them out and scrub the material between your knuckles until you’ve gotten out the dirt that the “swisher” didn’t get.
Next, wring them out for the first of three times before rinsing them in the other bucket of water you’ve pulled and heated. Next you get to put it through the wringer (literally) before you hang them in the cold winter air. If you’re lucky, you might get to snap one of your shirts in half tomorrow. That’s fun. Repeat four times until your load is done and your fingers are numb.
Also, don’t forget to wear gloves or your hands will either stick to or slip off the well handle.
For anyone who grew up washing (all) clothes by hand, my description is probably annoying and unnecessary, but how many of us remember that it was necessary only a generation or so ago–and that it is still necessary today in many parts of the world and the U.S.?
Having this be the exclusive method for washing clothes meant that I could no longer do the “wait until I run out of underwear before doing the laundry” thing. It meant I had to suck it up and get outside in the cold air and clean my own clothes. It meant finally caring that I kept my clothes clean because I was the one who would suffer later if they weren’t. Again, I know this sounds naive, but until I actually had to do it, it didn’t.
We might travel and volunteer abroad with expectations of what we will learn, but there is no alternative for actually learning it. Here’s to difficulty, to learning, and to washboards.